Stressful Days May Be Linked to Office Noise

Janet Babin- Beth Krakowski works in the administrative offices of the Cuyahoga County Public Library, an institution associated with quiet. But she says her work day is interrupted by noise.

Beth Krakowski- Noise from printers, books being dropped, carts that go by with books in them, phones ringing, colleagues talking on the phone.

JB- Krakowski says the sound can be annoying, but's she's learned to tune it out.

BK- Being there for two years now, you kind of learn to get used to it.

JB- But a new study suggests that what you learn to deal with can eventually catch up to you. Dr. Gary Evans is a professor of Environmental Psychology at Cornell University. As part of his research, Evans placed a group of 40 clerical workers into two environments: one quiet and one filled with typical open-style office noise.

Gary Evans- This was a lab study so we're sort of simulating (an) open office. We're using realistic open office noise. We randomly assigned people to either an open office where they're working and its typically open office noise or it's pretty quiet.

JB- Dr. Evans then measured stress and motivation levels in both groups. In workers subjected to the low-level office noise, Evans found an increase in stress hormones like cortizol. He also found that workers in the nosier environment made 40% fewer attempts to solve an unsolveable puzzle. Evans says the research confirms that even low-level office noise can become a health hazard over time.

GE- If you chronically elevate these stress hormones, that has some effect on the cardiovascular system, and some negative effects on your immune system.

JB- Evans says when he asked participants in the open office noise environment whether they felt more stressed, they said no.

GE- This means asking people might not be enough. You can learn to put up with anything, but there's no free lunch -- you pay for it in the end.

JB- Inside corporate design company ASD in Cleveland, about ten work spaces take up the central area, separated by 60-inch-high wood dividers that also provide each worker with space to tack up favorite photos or daily reminders. Larger conference rooms are divided by tall partitions, that don't quite meet up with the high ceilings. The phone rings in one cubicle while a group of designers brainstorm nearby. The hum of the air conditioner seems to even out the din. For those who might not have been around then, ASD Associate Interior Designer Naida Mirza explains how offices used to be.

Naida Mirza- People worked in hard wall offices and were separated by others from offices. And there was the whole (issue of) who gets the bigger office.

JB- But not anymore. Mirza says most companies are embracing the open office style workspace, to foster creativity and save money. So designers have figured out how to reduce the noise open style spaces inevitably create.

NM- We like to keep places like lunch rooms far away from places where people are trying to do concentrative work.

JB- Noise reduction engineer Stephen Roth of Roth Acoustical Associates has worked for years to reduce community, industrial and office noise. He says there's a technique called masking that's effective in cutting sound, by increasing noise.

Stephen Roth- If we add noise around the 40dB range, then that can mask the noise of someone talking in the next cubicle.

JB- But Cornell's Gary Evans says masking only goes so far.

GE- The scientific evidence suggests (masking) only works for some people some of the time.

JB- Evans says there's no way to totally eliminate office noise. So instead, companies should be flexible in creating quiet spaces for stressed out employees to concentrate. Or there's always the option of working from home. The International Telework Association says about 20 million U.S. workers telecommuted some of the time in the year 2000, and the number is expected to increase. In Cleveland, Janet Babin, 90.3 WCPN.

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